2011 Cadillac CTS Expert Reviews

Expert Reviews

2011 Cadillac CTS

New Car Test Drive
© 2011 NewCarTestDrive.com

The Cadillac CTS is loaded with style, performance and technology, and it delivers the essential attributes of a true sports sedan. It's as refined as its import-brand competitors, and easier to live with than some. Simply stated, the CTS is a very enjoyable car.

For 2011, Cadillac CTS is available in two new body styles: a two-door CTS coupe and a CTS Sport Wagon. (The CTS Coupe is reviewed separately by New Car Test Drive.) This is in addition to the four-door sedan.

The CTS Sport Wagon, introduced in late 2010, is available in CTS and high-performance CTS-V trim, and the CTS-V Sport Wagon is a 556-horsepower family hauler that goes toe-to-toe with the hyper-tuned luxury cars from BMW's M division and Mercedes-Benz AMG.

The CTS offers something for a wide range of automotive needs with three engine options, manual and automatic transmissions, four different suspension and tire/wheel combos and optional all-wheel-drive in three different body styles.

By price, the Cadillac CTS line compares with compact-sized luxury competitors such as the BMW 3 Series and Mercedes C-Class. By size and function, however, the CTS is closer to midsize competitors such as the BMW 5 Series, Mercedes E-Class, and Audi A6. The base CTS sedan is a great value at about $36,000.

The CTS uses rear-wheel drive, the baseline for a true sports sedan. The standard 3.0-liter V6 generates 274 horsepower and revs freely, complementing the available 6-speed manual transmission. The upgrade 3.6-liter V6 increases output to 304 hp, with substantially more torque, and it's rated at the same 27 mpg Highway as the smaller V6. The larger V6 works great with the optional 6-speed automatic, which is one of the best in this class. Both engines feature the latest technology, with variable valve timing and high-pressure direct fuel injection for the current optimum in power, fuel economy, and low emissions.

All-wheel drive is available, and it's a valuable addition in the Snowbelt. The AWD system uses an active transfer case that normally sends 40 percent of the power to the front wheels, 60 percent to the rear, maintaining a more rear-wheel-drive feel. But in slippery conditions the system can apply all of the torque to either axle, maximizing the CTS's ability to find traction.

The CTS and CTS-V feature sophisticated suspension systems developed, among other places, at the famous Nurburgring race track in Germany. Even the standard suspension delivers a good balance of handling response and ride comfort. The ride is always comfortable, but always well damped and never mushy. Steering is as fluid, as accurate and as nicely weighted as that in any sedan in the world. The CTS feels solidly put together, and it's quiet underway. The cabin is attractive, comfortable and space efficient, and everything is easy to operate. The Bose 5.1 Cabin Surround audio upgrade sounds fantabulous.

The Cadillac CTS-V has a supercharged 6.2-liter V8 that makes 556 horsepower and 551 pound-feet of torque, offered only with rear drive. It's one fast car. Cadillac reports a top speed of 179 mph, and when we tested the CTS-V at sinewy Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, California, its lap times were nearly as quick as the NASCAR Sprint Cup racecars that compete there. Then we drove it away, coddled in quiet civility and superb audio.

The V series is tip of the CTS line-up, starting just under $63,000. Still, a buyer can find a CTS sedan with the upgrade V6, essential luxury features, the audio upgrade and navigation for less than $45,000, maintenance included for 50,000 miles. It's a luxury-class value that's hard to overlook.

Model Lineup

Cadillac CTS 3.0 sedan ($35,165), AWD ($38,365); CTS 3.0 Sport Wagon ($38,265), AWD ($40,165); 3.6 sedan ($41,565), AWD ($43,465); 3.6 Sport Wagon ($43,365), AWD ($45,265); CTS-V sedan ($62,165); CTS-V Sport Wagon; CTS Coupe ($38,165), CTS Coupe AWD ($40,065); CTS-V Coupe ($62,165)

Walk Around

The Cadillac CTS might be the most appealing evolution of Cadillac's chiseled, Art & Science styling theme. It's more adventurous, perhaps less cookie-cutter inspired, than its organically shaped import-brand competition. Yet the CTS looks both classy and handsome.

The CTS line is often compared to compact luxury sedans like the Mercedes C-Class or BMW 3 Series, and that may be a function of similar pricing. By exterior dimensions, the CTS is actually as large or slightly larger than mid-size models like the BMW 5 Series or Mercedes E-Class. The Cadillac's impression of a more compact size probably speaks well of its overall design.

The CTS sedan and the new Sport Wagon are identical from the front bumper to about the middle roof pillar. The egg-crate grille design for V6 models is common across Cadillac's lineup. Vertically stacked headlight clusters make heavy use of LED (light-emitting diode) technology, which delivers lots of light and allows lots of style with little electrical load. The air vents or extractors near the trailing edge of the front fenders have been re-designed with a more open appearance for 2011.

The CTS wagon might be more handsome than the sedan, if only because its proportions are almost perfectly balanced. The integrated spoiler at the rear edge of the wagon's roof serves as both an aerodynamic device and the center high-mount brake light. The standard power liftgate can be operated with either the key fob or a switch at the rear of the car. A simple dial inside the gate allows its opening range to be adjusted, from just-above-roof height for short folks or tight garages to nearly vertical upward extension.

The high-performance CTS-V models get unique, functional styling features, starting with larger wire-mesh grille work above and below the front bumper. This doubles the amount of air flowing into the engine bay, increasing cooling capacity for the engine, transmission and front brakes. An aluminum power-dome hood provides a slight bulge to accommodate the supercharged V8 underneath. Huge Brembo brakes, wedged into thin-spoke, 19-inch forged wheels and extra-wide tires, comprise one of the most engaging visual elements on the car.

The big wheels aren't reserved for the CTS-V models, however. For 2011, Cadillac offers 19-inch wheels with all-season tires on all CTS sedans and wagons, including those with all-wheel drive. Wheel options range from 17 to 19 inches, and from painted to highly polished.


As Cadillac has steadily improved its CTS line-up, the interior has definitely kept pace. There are several small but welcome enhancements for 2011, including an update for GM's OnStar telematics system. With introduction of its ninth-generation control software, OnStar's voice recognition capability has been substantially improved.

Inside the CTS sedan and wagon, the basic theme is black with brushed metal and chrome accents. It's very contemporary, very attractive and generally space efficient. Optional Sapele wood, available in several packages, replaces the standard satin metallic trim. It's heavily grained, and adds a warmer, less technocratic finish.

The dashboard is fairly low and away from the front seats, leaving an airy, unhindered space in the front half of the CTS cabin. The hand-stitched center console blends seamlessly into the center stack of controls, creating a sport-cockpit ambience for the driver and front passenger, without compromising breathing space.

We found the CTS to be a nice place to sit and take a drive. The driver feels secure and comfortable, and the front passenger enjoys a feeling of ease, confidence and luxury. Visibility in the sedan is unfettered in all directions, though in the wagon the rear glass is smaller and a bit more restrictive. It creates a narrow view through the rearview mirror.

Fortunately, a rearview camera is available for the CTS wagon. For 2011, the back-up camera is also available on the sedan, and standard on CTS-V models. The rearview camera works great on cars with navigation systems. On CTSs without navigation, the camera image is projected on a very small LED screen hidden in the rearview mirror. It's much harder to see details with the small screen.

The front bucket seats are comfortable, with enough side bolstering to keep the CTS driver snug and in place behind the wheel, even during some enthusiastic driving on central California's windiest, curviest roads. A Recaro sport seat option is available on all models, with 14 different adjustments and bolsters that can be pumped up for hard driving, then deflated for cruising. They're suitable even for race track use, but generally quite hard. Unless a driver regularly attends track events, he or she will be better served by the standard CTS seats.

We appreciated the range of adjustment with the power seats and the power steering column. The tilt-and-telescope column offers ultimate comfort and allows a proper driving position. The CTS instrument package is complete, easy to read, and graphically appealing. The center stack is particularly well done, both attractive and easy to use, with some interesting readout placements here and there. With the navigation system, and its combination of touch-screen and hard-button controls, the CTS offers one of the better driver/machine interfaces in current luxury cars.

The upgrade Bose 5.1 Cabin Surround audio system has a 40-gigabyte hard-drive for media storage, an iPod connector and USB port, and it offers the ultimate in musical enjoyment. Using the navigation screen, it's easy to switch back and forth between the three broadcast and three stored-music formats by simply touching the screen, and the blue display is large enough to be read from the back seat. It's one of the best, most fun-to-use sound systems available. In comparison, many other luxury cars have audio systems that are fussy or difficult to operate.

CTS-V models have a few extra sporting touches inside, starting with a thick-rimmed steering wheel that can be covered with synthetic suede. It's one of our favorites in any automobile. The dead pedal, which allows the driver to brace the left leg, is great for enthusiastic driving. Subtle V badging inside reminds passengers that the owner has anted up for the super-performance package.

The rear seat offers enough room for two adults approaching six feet in height. The rear outboard seats are carved out like buckets, and quite comfortable, but the flip side is a narrow, flat plateau in the middle section. It's not a place anyone over 12 will want to sit, unless the choice is walking. A switch on the back of the center console controls airflow for rear passengers, between vents on the console itself or registers under the front seats.

The plastics on the front seatbacks and the rear end of the console form the weak link in interior finish. They're hard and not $40,000-plus in appearance. In the CTS wagon, rear-seat passengers might feel a bit more constricted due to the wide rear roof pillar extending rearward from their outboard shoulder.

With 13.6 cubic feet of luggage space, the CTS sedan's trunk is larger than those in compact luxury sedans like the BMW 3 Series or Mercedes C-Class, but slightly smaller than the trunk in mid-size models like the 5 Series, E-Class or Audi A6.

The CTS wagon delivers 53.4 cubic feet of cargo space with the seatbacks folded, 25.4 cubic feet with the rear seat in place. That's almost as much cargo space as what's found in a compact SUV.

In the wagon, the bottom of the rear seat is fixed. Yet the seatbacks fold forward easily, creating a flat load floor from almost the front seatbacks to the rear bumper, a great feature. An easy, dial-type knob allows the CTS owner to program how high the power tailgate swings open.

The carpeted floor in the wagon's cargo area slides out over the bumper, exposing a shallow, rubber-lined bin that contains water from soaked boots or coolers dripping condensation, The floor also has tie-down hooks and a slide-track system that secures various accessories. Our test car had a folding dog gate that spread floor-to-headliner behind the rear seatbacks. It was a bit of a chore to install, but once in place it was truly sturdy and impenetrable to any pet we've met.

Driving Impressions

The Cadillac CTS is cast in the mold of a classic European sports sedan, and it's formed particularly well. It compares nicely with its luxury import-brand competition, and in some respects beats the competition on its own terms.

The CTS is responsive, lively and athletic. It handles as well as the best European sedans, yet it's also comfortable, smooth and quiet. It delivers a good mix of interior space, substance and manageable exterior dimensions. With a wide range of engine, suspension and tire/wheel packages, and optional all-wheel-drive, the CTS wagon and sedan can satisfy a wide range of needs and tastes.

Both V6 engines employ the most up-to-date control and materials technology, with dual overhead cams, variable valve timing and high-pressure direct fuel injection. As a result, they are both responsive and lively. The direct injection gives both extremely good throttle response, with more fuel efficiency and lower emissions.

The 3.0-liter V6, with 270 horsepower, is a fine base engine, although it doesn't match the torque of the upgrade 3.6-liter V6. Somewhat surprisingly, there is little or no penalty in fuel economy with the larger engine, so if the additional expense is not an issue, we have to recommend the 3.6, most especially when choosing the optional all-wheel drive. With 304 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque, the 3.6-liter is ready to go out and play anytime the driver wishes, delivering a solid combination of power, fuel economy and assertive sound when the throttle is opened all the way.

We love the fact that Cadillac offers all CTS models with a manual transmission, regardless of how many buyers actually choose one. We found the 6-speed manual has easy, smooth clutch action and requires only a light touch on the shift lever to change gears. It's a good choice.

The 6-speed automatic is responsive in full automatic mode, rarely stuttering in its gear selection or balking when it's time to shift down a gear or two. It's also very quick and positive to shift manually, up or down, with a little bit of throttle blip on the downshifts to keep the drivetrain happy and the tires from skipping and chirping. The choice comes down to personal preference. We liked both transmissions, though our affection for the automatic increases with the 3.6-liter V6, thanks to that engine's additional torque.

Steering in the CTS is excellent: very accurate, with good feel and a nice, weighty demeanor. This, perhaps surprisingly, is one area where it surpasses some of its European competitors, which are still sorting through the introduction of fuel saving electric power-steering pumps. The CTS steering system uses a forward-mounted power rack-and-pinion that pulls, rather than pushes, the steering arms. (It pulls on the steering arm of that front tire which will be on the outside in the turn, so in a right-hand turn it is pulling on the left-side steering arm, placing that side in tension rather than compression.)

The brakes are excellent, too, equipped with advanced electronic controls and Electronic Brake-force Distribution. They provide impressive stopping power, with almost no fading in truly aggressive use, in a car that approaches two tons of mass.

For all its steering, cornering and handling prowess, the CTS doesn't exact a stiff penalty in noise or harshness over the road. Even the base car is well damped, so the ride is smooth but not floaty. If the optimal balance of handling response and ride quality is the priority, we recommend a CTS with Cadillac's optional Magnetic Ride Control variable suspension. Originally developed by GM, and billed as the world's fastest-reacting suspension technology, MR has since been adapted by several manufacturers, most prominently Ferrari.

In all cases, the CTS feels very solidly put together. It's quiet inside in all circumstances, expect when the gas pedal is floored. The standard 17-inch all-season tires are quietest of all, though they lack the ultra-sharp steering response of some the larger performance-tire upgrades.

All-wheel drive is optional on CTS sedan, wagon and coupe models. Even in ideal conditions, AWD makes the CTS feel extra stable, and it enhances driver confidence on winding roads. While it comes with a slight weight and fuel-mileage disadvantage, the advantages of all-wheel drive in sloppy weather or big rain are substantial.

The driver of a CTS Sport Wagon will have a difficult time finding any dynamic distinctions from the sedan. The wagon is just as smooth, precise and well-planted. On the road, the only issue is rearward visibility. The wagon's wider rear roof pillars and upright rear window narrow the scope of the view through the rearview mirror, so it's a little harder to identify what's approaching from behind.

Driving a CTS-V model raises the experience to another level. The CTS-V supercharged V8 is different from the V6s, with an old-school cam in the engine block and push-rod operated valves. Yet that shouldn't be taken as a problem, because the CTS-V's 6.2-liter V8 is thoroughly modern in operation and performance.

The CTS-V models deliver a remarkable combination of sporting entertainment and coddling everyday transport. The steering feels more natural and satisfying than what's found in a lot of sports cars. Clutch and brake action are better than any Cadillac ever, and better than the super-tuned luxury hotrods from some European manufacturers. Despite a substantial increase in pavement grip, thanks largely to its extra wide, sticky performance tires, the CTS-V's standard MR variable suspension never feels too harsh. At two thirds of its 179-mph published top speed, the CTS-V sedan is as stable as granite.

And boy oh boy, that engine. It's a feast of visceral excitement at just about any speed up to its 6200-rpm redline, if you can afford the gas. Its supercharger is very quiet in operation, and it keeps pumping acceleration-building torque at high revs. The CTS-V scoots from 0-60 mph in less than 4 seconds, but there is a ton of acceleration no matter how fast it's already going. There's so much torque that gear selection, road or engine speed almost don't matter. Step on it anywhere, at any speed, and the CTS-V flat flies.

Still, the CTS-V's most valuable asset is its level-headed approach to the business of driving. It's a big car, with a slight bit more weight over its front wheels, but it takes some cruel treatment to make the CTS-V bite. In a sense its unflappable, except that unflappable implies restrained, and the CTS-V is always lively and fun. Its stability control system is anything but a straight jacket, allowing both ends of the car to slide a little before the electronics go to work.

Bottom line, the CTS-V's strength is the same as the CTS's in general, only dialed up a notch or two. It's the satisfying, integrated experience in the driver's seat that impresses most. It just happens to be one of the absolute fastest sedans in the world.

The 2011 Cadillac CTS looks marvelous, with comfortable space for four adults, or five in a pinch. It's got lots of go for the performance enthusiast, and all the bells and whistles. It's offered as a four-door sedan, Sport Wagon or new two-door coupe. With three engine choices from strong-but-frugal to incredibly powerful, manual or automatic transmissions and optional all-wheel-drive, there's a CTS for every taste. Any CTS model compares favorably the luxury-class competition from Germany or Japan.

NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Jim McCraw test drove the CTS in Northern California. Mitch McCullough reported on the CTS-V from Infineon Raceway at Sonoma, California, with J. P. Vettraino in Detroit.

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